Sonia O'Sullivan: The Shocking Pleasures of Cold Water Swimming Beyond the Summer Months

Sonia O’Sullivan: The Shocking Pleasures of Cold Water Swimming Beyond the Summer Months

Between the thunder and rain and the lights coming on at noon, it’s clear that winter is fast approaching. Everything is falling off like the last autumn leaves on the trees.

However, the unpredictability of October means there’s still a window of opportunity if you want to take advantage of it.

Our Saturday morning cycle with the Cobh Triathlon Club has been canceled given the wind and rain already forecast. Traveling wouldn’t be fun. We might have gotten out okay, but there could have been carnage on the way home.

Instead this led to a morning walk around the other side of the big island back into the woods of Marlogue and along the beach. After passing Cuskinny there is the sheltered cove where Cobh’s open water swimmers meet daily.

There are always a few heads bobbing around at high tide, and with the afternoon gale gathering it was already looking choppy and rough.

You can see and feel the energy of the regulars, it’s as much about the camaraderie, the talks and the laughs as it is about getting in at the deep end

I thought about Sunday morning and the charity swim planned for Whitepoint across town. I was planning to support the event on the stand-up paddleboard, only the rough seas made me think I might swim.

Lately I’ve been escaping the cold water, staying dry on the paddleboard and swinging among the year-round swimmers. Sometimes I just pull by at high tide to see if anyone is in the water, all raggedy in a down jacket and woolen hat, just to give a curious look, not even trying to jump in.

Sunday’s swim was organized by the Whitepoint swimmers to raise awareness and funds for the restoration of what is known locally as the American Pier. It is a protected area on the west side of Cobh, just below the berth where huge cruise ships cunningly turn around and moor throughout the summer, although this season is now coming to an end.

Many Cobh residents have childhood memories of jumping off the aging pier at Whitepoint. Few are likely aware of the pier’s historical significance, as it now seems to be the only physical reminder of a time during World War I when US Navy ships would dock at the port.

They used the pier as an access point for injured soldiers coming to the makeshift US hospital at Whitepoint. The US Navy also took over a large house and built makeshift huts along the shore to treat and house the sick and injured soldiers.

A group of residents and stakeholders set up the website to share the story and also to initiate an action to restore the pier and maintain safe bathing at Whitepoint Strand. It’s a special place where you can swim while large ships pass on the other side of Haulbowline Island under the watchful eye of the Irish Naval Service.

It’s amazing what a little challenge can do for you. With the predicted wind and rain, it looked like I’d be in the water rather than on it. Even if I tried to be on the paddleboard I would most likely end up in the water.

I knew the rules: no wetsuit, just pure wild swimming from the slipway to the orange buoy, around two yellow cans and back to the pier, a total of 400m and about eight minutes in the cold sea.

If you’re not used to it, this becomes a challenge; only when the decision is made, no challenge is too big.

Unlike running, where you can just lace up your shoes and walk out the door, there’s no limit to what you need to bring to a sea swim to get dressed quickly and warm up afterwards.

The excitement and buzz around the place was enough; I wanted in. Little did I know I was going to find out why there are so many groups of wild swimmers that meet daily year-round and chase endorphins, similar to running, that fuel you for the day.

As well illustrated in the book I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice, once you try to understand it it is one of those things. You can see and feel the energy of the regulars, it’s as much about the camaraderie, the talks and the laughs as it is about getting in at the deep end.

Perhaps something in the cold water opens the soul, the connection is as pure and simple as the activity itself.

When the air temperature drops, it is warmer in the water than outside. At least that’s what I told myself when I woke up early, still dark outside, my swimming trunks at the foot of the bed. The decision was made, now there is no turning back.

Outside the window the sky was already red, the approaching sunrise; The calm before the storm. I was able to warm up on the way and join in the swim just after 9am.

It may not be my everyday routine yet, but the temptation is there to test the water at least once a month throughout the winter

Neoprene shoes and gloves were the only luxury as I waded into the sea. It didn’t feel like much of a shock, I knew that would come when I was fully immersed.

A man and his dog were already swimming toward the buoy as I did my little countdown. Three, two, one… now the shock of my lack of daily acclimatization was definitely there.

There’s also that pleasure of taking your breath away with the first few chest movements required to get going, then the steady and relaxed breathing required at all times in swimming and once you’ve found it, there is nothing better.

That’s the benefit of year-round cold-water swimming—the experience that will leave you shocking the system and taking your breath away. In general, we all move within our comfort zones and never experience a shock to the system, like the adrenaline rush you get when you dive into cold water.

We shy away from some pain and difficulty when that’s what we should be craving, at least once a day to reset the energy systems in our bodies.

It may not be my everyday routine yet, but the temptation is there to test the water at least once a month throughout the winter.

For more information, visit: americanpiercobh.com

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